Your Questions Answered: Which Comes First, The Learning Or The Doing?

UPDATE: LISA RESPONDED TO THIS POST. Check out her expert advice at The Glowing Edge.

This isn't a Your Questions Answered so much as I Had A Question But You Wanted To Hear My Thoughts First So You Can Respond In Your Blog So Here's What I Was Thinking.

I had asked Lisa at The Glowing Edge a boxing question, because I really respect her opinions, and she answered my question with a question. Don't you hate when people do that? But Lisa wanted to know more, and promised to reciprocate; she'd blog in response to my post addressing her question based on my question. What question? How much should you learn before you spar, and at what point do you get in the ring and learn there? It's to do with boxing, but there are general theories at play here, so I welcome the input of boxers and nonboxers alike.

Dear Lisa,

The young man faces me, squatting as he lowers the headgear to check its fit. "Too tight," I slobber out, my cheeks squeezed, my mouthguard hindering speech. Behind me now, he moves my ponytail and works to lessen the pressure.

Another man holds my hands and laces up the gloves; yet another comes by to tape them down. I move toward the ring, where an older fellow holds the vaseline that will protect my face. He dabs and smears, and when he finishes another man motions with a water bottle. He offers a squirt and I take it.

A man holds the ropes for me as I climb through. "First time?" he asks, and I nod. "Well then, cover up. Protect yourself."

The spa of sparring. An entourage tenders full and intimate care, fussing all over you. They're your team. In your corner. But the moment that bell rings, it's you and you alone. Protect yourself.

Kate Sekules opens her boxing memoir, The Boxer's Heart, with a recounting of her trainer's plan for her first professional fight. Throw the first punch, he told her. What then? she asked. He replied, You'll know what to do.

"That's it, the entire plan," she writes. "Slam a big right into her face and 'knock her thoughts out.'"

Of course, Sekules had lots of training behind her to call on. My story, however, ends at that first piece of advice: Cover up. I'd practiced a few moves, took a lot of direction on the bags, but at my gym, the real lessons come only when you spar. You try something in the ring, and you're offered advice on what to do next time.

So I went in there aiming to protect myself. First time sparring should not be analyzed too carefully--some people say you forget everything you've learned the second you get hit--but I think I can safely say I absorbed more punches than I needed to, even while covered. Because while everyone told me to cover up, they didn't tell me to move. My footwork was good, they tell me, but my head was too still a target. It hurt; I left thinking I need to learn a few moves before doing this again.

In the following weeks I would approach a favorite trainer and ask him specific questions. He worked with me. We fell into a rhythm of getting together evenings when I was there.

And the time came when I asked a question and realized it's all getting a bit hypothetical. I noticed I've been avoiding Thursdays, the sparring night.

Experienced boxers, theoretically, own enough control to give you only what you could handle; however, I knew I'd be matched up again with someone with no more experience than I have. I can't tell you how many times I've heard phrases like, "On the street I be like this, but here they have me do this." Many of these kids are street fighters with minimal boxing finesse, but working on it--on my body. Help.

I can't say that I've learned a whole lot more since that first sparring session, but at the same time I wonder if I won't learn much more until I get in there again. Sparring, after all, helped me understand the point of shadowboxing and all the rest, and provoked the questions I needed to answer for myself.

In the end, it's just me that gets in there, and no entourage can help me. I need to be ready.

But do I prepare quietly, or at the expense of a handful of ibuprofen and three days of a vice grip on my head? When do you cross over (or under the ropes, in my case), stop thinking, and just do?


Have a question? Make a comment! I'll respond in a future post.


  1. I like that book The Boxer's Heart! I wrote the author after I finished it, and she wrote a nice note back.

    People should probably wait several weeks before sparring for the first time. It gives them time to practice the basics. The waiting time also slows down the folks who are eager to jump in the ring but who aren't keen on learning the moves first. Coaches will often say they know when someone is ready for sparring, but the individual go with their feelings and not let a coach push them into the ring too soon.

  2. So cool that she wrote back! I really liked the book, too.

    There's so much that's mentally going on with sparring, too, that you need to be in a good place for that.


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